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Start-Up Uses Polymorphism Against Web Attackers

Start-Up Uses Polymorphism Against Web Attackers
January 21, 2014 10:04AM

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"Cybercriminals employ sophisticated attacks that operate at large scale while easily evading detection by security defenses," in part by writing specific code for every new machine targeted, said Shape Security CEO Derek Smith. The company's new ShapeShifter approach means attackers now must adapt to rapidly changing code.

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What if a Web site could use a key malware technique against cyberattacks? That's what a California-based start-up is doing in launching a new product Tuesday that uses real-time polymorphism as a Web site defense.

The company, Shape Security, has released a network security appliance called the ShapeShifter that implements dynamically changing code on any Web site, so that attackers, for the first time, are confronted with a continually moving target.

The company is also working on a cloud-based version of its technology, which rewrites the visible code of a Web site into random strings that continually change, without affecting the user interface or functionality. The appliance is oriented toward the higher end of the security market, while the cloud version will be available for the rest.

'Deflection, Not Detection'

CEO Derek Smith said in a statement that "modern cybercriminals employ sophisticated attacks that operate at large scale while easily evading detection by security defenses," in part by writing the attacking code for every new machine that is targeted. The ShapeShifter approach means that attackers now have the burden of adapting to rapidly changing code, rather than Web sites having to defend against automated, rapidly changing attacks.

Smith added that the ShapeShifter "focuses on deflection, not detection," since Web sites, by continually changing the sites' code, can disable the attacking automation. The cybercriminals, Smith said, "now face the daunting task of making their malware interact with a Web application that has become a moving target, constantly rewriting itself." The process is transparent to the end user, who continues to see the original user interface.

In its announcement, the company cited Robert Lentz, former chief information security officer at the U.S. Department of Defense, who told news media that Shape's technology "allows enterprises to block dozens of attack categories, such as account takeover, application distributed denial of service, and Man-in-the-Browser." He described their approach as "a potentially disruptive technology" for Web site security.

'Still a Shield'

John Pescatore, an analyst with industry research firm Gartner, told us that "anything that makes it harder" to attack a Web site has a benefit. "Polymorphism," he noted, "essentially means that the target doesn't stay the same all the time," making it harder to attack the code. He added that it was still possible for attackers to penetrate that kind of defense "by trying millions of variations," although it is likely the Web site owner would notice that "there are thousands of log-in attempts."

But, he added, the Shape technology "is still a shield." The better approach, he said, would be fixing the vulnerabilities in the first place, such as by using any of the current tools for checking code for weaknesses.

The company, founded and staffed by veterans from Google, the Pentagon, VMware, Cisco and elsewhere, has raised $26 million from a variety of venture capital investors. Co-founder Sumit Agarwal was the first mobile project manager at Google and CEO Derek Smith is the former chief of network security at Oakley Networks.

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